CSR & ethical fashion part II – Gucci’s eco gear vs. luxury goods made in China

In the first part of my “CSR and ethical fashion”- work we took a closer look at luxury brands and their CSR activities and examined whether ethical fashion is exclusively being practiced among high street brands like Zara or Urban Outfitters or already extended across the fast fashion market and reached high-end fashion houses.

The answer was “yes” given the fact that renowned British designer Vivienne Westwood is committed to her Ethical Fashion Africa project for several years now. Ecologically sustainable and recyclable fashion is being produced meanwhile poverty issues are addressed and local entrepreneurship is promoted.

The question that remained in my previous blog post was: Has CSR really reached the luxury brands or do the just skim the surface of responsible business?

The reluctant ones

The MoDown blog targets luxury companies over ethics by informing its readers about the results of the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA) report titled “Style over Substance” that was released in September 2011. The key point is that a number of selected luxury houses( Prada, Alexander McQueen, LVHM, Burberry, Armani) has been assessed against 15 ethical criteria including

  • animal rights
  • human rights
  • the environment
  • political activities (lobbying) and
  • anti-social finance practices.

According to ethicalconsumer.org all companies were asked to fill in a questionnaire with 22 questions, but surprisingly none of them responded. Wow! That was my reaction when I read the summary of the report. Unfortunately this “wow“ didn’t have a positive connotation.

Probably you wonder now how this could happen knowing that designers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney successfully manage to produce under environmental friendly conditions with a maximum concern of the living standards of their workers and craftsmen.

Well, obviously there are ways how to avoid reporting on the reduction of environmental and social impacts. The “Style over Substence” report has its own impression of Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Gucci claiming that

the Stella McCartney brand is proudly anti fur or leather, yet its parent company Gucci Group uses fur in many of its other fashion brands. And while Dame Vivienne may be personally committed to fighting climate change, her company Vivienne Westwood Ltd has no environmental policy in place to reduce the global warming impact of its own operations.“

The problem is that many consumers do not suspect that luxury brands outsource their work force to low-cost countries in Asia. Leon Kaye from triplepundit.com revealed in his blog post “ Can Gucci sell sustainability“ that Prada contracts workers from China that are paid low wages and were shipped to Italy.

Impacttlimited.com summarizes this the perception of consumers as follows:

 WWF’s investigations show that consumers increasingly associate luxury with high ethical standards, however many traditional luxury brands’ CSR records are poor.“

The findings that were published in the Deeper Luxury Report conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reflect the same attitude of luxury brands that was unveiled in the “Style over Substance“ report.None of the 10 brands that were investigated concerning their performance against Ethical Trade or Stakeholder Engagement issues achieved an A grade. L’Oréal received the highest score with a C+.

There seems to be something like a vow of silence among luxury companies that are reluctant when it comes to reporting on their activities to reduce negative environmental impacts.

Wherever there is money, there is influence but not always there are high ethical standards. So if there is influence, why not support eco-friendly initiatives.

Instead

(…)the CEOs of luxury conglomerates pay themselves hefty annual     bonuses – some to the tune of £5 million – the workers who actually make the clothes aren’t even being promised enough wages to cover their basic costs of living.(…)“.

 And the truth is…

Christian Dior and Gucci Group sell gold and diamonds without any policy on ethical sourcing or becoming member of the Responsible Jewellery Council. The Dirty Laundry report conducted by Greenpeace exposed several big clothing companies including Calvin Klein who are responsible for polluting two main rivers in China.

Animal testing is a highly controversial issue, too. Burberry, Armani and Prada that were investigated in the context of the “Style over Substance“ report produce their own fragrances and had the worst rating for its animal testing policy.

Although well-known 90ies models like Naomi Campbell posed for PETA ad campaigns saying “We rather go naked than wear“ fear to help make fur taboo, it seems that with the celebrity culture that emerged the drama around it has not yet come to an end.

An example is Keira Kneightley who wore a karakul coat at an awards ceremony in 2009. Bryony Moore from ECRA points out that Karakul is one of the most disturbing furs on offer. So what has actually changed? Nothing?

From mystery-monger to active participant

Katherine Hamnett, fashion designer and icon, observed an expanding trend in society and implies that this is the kind of thinking that can lead the way for companies in order to step onto the next rung of the ladder by saying:

Consumers’ increasing concerns with environmental and social problems are the greatest cultural shift of the 21st century and points the way to how these industries must behave if they are to keep their cachet which they need to survive.“

Gucci, one of the world’s most iconic Italian brands, is a leading company in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility activities. In 2004 Gucci launched a voluntary certification process alongside its production chain and it was the first in its sector.

Gucci’s Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility manager Rossella Ravagli declares that sustainable luxury comes from external demand. She explains that consumers are more cautious when purchasing a product and increasingly pay attention to where the product comes from, who produced it and what kind of materials were used.

Revagli further insists:

Gucci has always posed a responsible attitude towards people, the environment and its community.“

Gucci for example created new packaging made with FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) paper that is 100% recyclable and introduced the first sunglasses made with “liquid wood“, a biodegradable material.

Gucci assures that sustainability is compatible with its brand image and that it will make further investments in terms of commitment. So why cannot other luxury brands follow suit?

Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2012 – a decisive step towards sustainability in the fashion industry?

Australian model and sustainable fashion campaigner Nerida Lennon claims on her blog that sustainable fashion is longer a trend but a necessity. She also alleges that companies have to adapt to consumers’ demands or otherwise will be threatened with extinction.

Gucci was one of the brands that attended the summit with the aim to raise awareness about their CSR practices and to promote sustainability in the luxury sector.

The Copenhagen Fashion Summit is in fact the world’s most important conference about CSR and sustainable fashion and it shows how many companies are already committed to ethical fashion. That’s why ethical fashion can no longer be viewed as a trend. It is reality.

H&M which was also participating in the summit found out the at the beginning of this movement fashion consumers that consumed in a socially responsible way were called hippies and now they are eco-fashionistas and it is simply cool to be responsible.

What we can take away from it

CSR and sustainable fashion have reached the luxury market and Gucci is the best example that proves that quality can go hand in hand with sustainability without harming its reputation.

However, we still have enough luxury companies that do not follow Gucci’s example and prefer not to report on CSR because they are not committed to it at all or only a little.

There is still a lot to do and to learn, but it goes in the right direction. Going green means satisfying consumer needs, contributing to the well-being of our society, saving costs for the company and increasing profits.

So how do you think about luxury brands and their commitment to CSR? Has ethical fashion already spread among luxury brands or are they a far cry from eco-business?

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